Blaming the person, ignoring the situation

Satyajit Rout
3 min readNov 30, 2022

When others trip up, we chalk it up to their character and ignore the circumstances. When it comes to us, we happily cut ourselves some slack and point at the situation.

This is called the 𝐟𝐮𝐧𝐝𝐚𝐦𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐚𝐥 𝐚𝐭𝐭𝐫𝐢𝐛𝐮𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐞𝐫𝐫𝐨𝐫. It will hurt you to be at the receiving or giving end of it.

1️⃣ I was a young trainer once. And I started off inauspiciously. I made my first trainee cry in the office bathroom. He had made behind my back what I took to be a tongue-in-cheek comment about how his training was going, and I didn’t appreciate it. So I told him off. Told him he was immature and very much thought so too. But he wasn’t. I was.

2️⃣ Some years after story #1, I was trying out as an associate product manager. I was supposed to be a part of this product review. Product reviews are high-stakes affairs, typically attended by management. I had to attend a funeral on the same morning and got delayed coming back. I had to dial in on my phone and the line was bad. Not a good day.

What made it much worse was that my reporting manager pegged my snafu down to my work ethic. I put up a stirring defense. But it didn’t matter. She didn’t trust me.

3️⃣ A few months before I got married, I had taken my fiancée to meet my family in the town I grew up in. My folks were embarrassed by my fiancée’s thank-yous and sorrys. They told her that such obligations were unnecessary with family and that it only reminded them that she didn’t consider them family.

My fiancée was surprised. She had been taught that it was important to make people feel appreciated and saying thank you and sorry was a good way of doing so.

The common thread in these stories is an inability to take the perspective of others, while expecting others to take yours. This is what David Foster Wallace called, in his moving commencement speech ‘This is Water’, being the center of the universe: ‘the deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.’

💡You already know that feeding such a belief leads to problems. But what you may not have thought of is that this belief is also a social repellant, so you’ll move mountains to hide it. That’s what makes the fundamental attribution error so insidious.

We’re built to look for causes that we can name and shame, if need be. That makes more sense in our heads.

Terrorism causes a fraction of the damage that climate change does. But we take terrorism so seriously and are so blasé about climate change. If climate change had been the handiwork of a tyrant we would have marshaled troops and crushed it long back.

It is harder to accept circumstances than it is to blame people.

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Satyajit Rout

I write about decision-making, mental models, and better thinking and things in between